Copernicus asks: what can EFL students learn from Stephen Hawking?

Stephen Hawking

What can EFL students learn from Stephen Hawking?

It’s not often discussed in course books, but one of the most fascinating things about languages is the question of rhythm.

Some languages – such as Spanish, French and Japanese – tend to be syllable-timed, where syllables have similar length and similar stress. Other languages – such as English, German and Arabic – tend to be stress-timed: here, syllables have different lengths and different stresses.

(Note: this is a complex area, and languages do not fall neatly into one category or the other. It’s better to think of syllable-timing and stress-timing as being like a spectrum – but that’s still oversimplifying things!)

EFL students whose native language is more syllable-timed can have difficulty with unstressed syllables in English – both in terms of speaking and listening. Of course, the opposite problem occurs when native English-speakers study a more syllable-timed language: with Japanese, for example, it’s very easy to (incorrectly) put a stress on the second syllable of “konnichiwa”.

To help students think more about rhythm, it can be helpful to ask: what would a native English-speaker sound like if they put equal stress on each syllable? Well, we have an example – and appropriately for a column called “Copernicus”, it features the world’s most famous living scientist.

Stephen Hawking is generally regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein. He is famous for his work on black holes, for his popular science book “A Brief History of Time”, and for last year’s acclaimed movie “The Theory of Everything”.

He is also famous for his voice. He has motor neurone disease (a rare condition that progressively damages the nervous system), and he speaks through a voice synthesizer.

“The voice is one of the unique things that defines Stephen, in my opinion,” says Sam Blackburn, who is Hawking’s technician. “He could easily change to a voice that was clearer, perhaps more soothing to listen to – less robotic sounding – but it wouldn’t be Stephen’s voice anymore.”

Why does Hawking’s voice sound “robotic”? One of the reasons is that his speech synthesizer puts similar stress on each syllable and on each word – in other words, it takes a syllable-timed approach to English.

Here is a lecture that Hawking gave at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in 2009. It is a technical talk entitled “Spontaneous Creation of Universes”, but Hawking begins (at 2:42) with an example of a creation myth (a traditional story of how the universe began).

“Can you hear me?

“According to the Apache Indians, in the beginning, nothing existed. Only darkness was everywhere. Suddenly, a thin disk emerged from the darkness, one side yellow and the other white, appearing suspended in mid-air.

“Within the disk sat the Creator, the One Who Lives Above. When he looked into the endless darkness, light appeared above. He looked down and it became a sea of light. To the east, he created yellow streaks of dawn. To the west, tints of many colours appeared everywhere.

“Similar creation myths occur in other cultures. The early attempts to answer the age-old questions: why are we here? Where did we come from?

“A key question was: did the universe have a beginning? Was there a moment of creation? Or has the universe existed for ever?”


(1) Ask students to think about which words would usually be unstressed in the above passage. How would it sound?

(2) Ask students to research and briefly summarise another creation myth.
Useful link:

(3) Imagine you were given a ‘one question’ interview with Stephen Hawking. What would you ask?
Useful link:

Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

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